Waves of heat rise from the parched foothills behind the stadium. Down on the field, the athletes lie in varying angles of repose, many with their sweat clothes off, awaiting the start of the Mount San Antonio College Relays in the small Southern California town of Walnut. As the sprinters begin casual stretching and the shotputters leisurely flex their muscles, a group of lonely-looking, long-legged, thin-waisted young men are beginning to compete in perhaps the oddest of all field events—the triple jump. One by one the jumpers dash down the runway, spring from the takeoff board and strain their bodies skyward, and come to earth with a loud thwack. They take off again, land again, thwack, and finally hurl themselves into the landing pit. Each athlete resembles an ignorant ostrich attempting to fly.
In this group is 29-year-old Milan Tiff, who for the better part of a decade has been one of America's top triple jumpers. Tiff leads the field after the qualifying round. But in the finals he fouls on his first jump and produces a middling effort on his second. Before his third and final try he strips off his sweats, revealing two sorry-looking legs, and walks to the head of the runway. Suddenly he is churning forward, knees reaching for his chest, gasping audibly. And then he goes into his routine. At each of the three takeoffs his arms shoot up and forward like wings; an instant before each landing they are thrust behind as in the breaststroke. Tiffs jump is announced as 56'1¼", the day's winner by almost a foot.
As he picks up his trophy Tiff turns to an acquaintance and announces, "This plaque is nice to get, but I don't care about winning. I compete for exercise and the fun of it. I find the movements exhilarating." From anyone else this disclaimer would sound like so much pious nonsense. Not from Tiff. The fact is, he could barely walk until he was eight, and not normally until he was almost 13. "I don't get upset over losses," he says. "I'm happy just to be walking."
As a child Tiff contracted what was probably polio (it was never positively diagnosed) and spent his first seven years stumbling around his parents' house in the posh Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Even now his calves are only partially filled out, and this causes him embarrassment. "I don't like to take my pants off," he says. "Every time I do, people stare at me and feel sorry. My legs don't look right."
July 29, 1979
Unable to perform normal physical acts while a child, Tiff began to re-create them in art. He spent hours each day drawing human beings standing correctly, well-muscled galloping horses, or splendid birds in flight. At age 10 he made his first sale, a da Vinci-style sketch of the hind legs of a deer running. That led to a career in painting. Today Tiff supports himself as an artist, charging up to $3,500 for a painting.
But drawing robust animals was not enough. Tiff put mirrors on all four walls of his room and stared endlessly at himself from all angles. Instead of seeing a scrawny, malformed child, Tiff visualized himself as high jumper John Thomas or sprinter Frank Budd. Mostly, he imagined himself as Jesse Owens, who had run on the same sprint relay team as his father, Benjamin, years before at East Technical High School in Cleveland. "I'd just stand in front of those mirrors, trying to find an answer," he says. "As an artist I could duplicate any image put in front of me. I was trying to do that to myself, to make myself stand and walk like everybody else. I'd do exercises all day long, like trying to touch my toes. I said to myself, 'One day you'll be the best at touching your toes, and then you'll show that to everybody.' "
While Tiff had trouble putting two normal steps together, in his imagination he was already performing astonishing athletic feats. He fancied himself a superhuman hopscotch player. "The kids would draw a hopscotch diagram in dimensions they could deal with, depending on their size," he says. "They'd throw the sandbag and jump from one small square to the next. All I could do was dream about jumping and running. So I'd go onto the street and draw my own hopscotch squares. They'd say, 'Your squares are too big. We can't jump from one to another.' I'd say, 'What are you talking about? I can.' And my squares got bigger and bigger, until they were as big as the street. That was the perspective I wanted to play in."
After his eighth birthday, something marvelous began to happen to Milan Tiff. His legs started to develop. By the time he was 13, they had straightened out. Tiff recalls the triumph of sailing clear outside the pit in a ninth-grade long-jump test. He first took up the triple jump in the summer of 1967. Within a year, as an 18-year-old senior at Shaker Heights High School, he uncorked a jump of 49'11 "—at the time the third-longest triple jump in high school history.
Tiffs physical turnaround surprised his father as much as anyone. "He was so skinny I didn't pay much attention to him athletically," Benjamin says. "All of a sudden he just blossomed." Tiff went on to win an NCAA indoor triple-jump title in 1970 while enrolled at Miami of Ohio, and two years later he transferred to UCLA, where in 1973 he won the NCAA outdoor crown. He has also won three AAU titles (indoor and outdoor), his finest moment coming in 1977 when he leapt 57'¼". It would have been an American record had it not been wind-assisted.
Despite these feats, Tiff may be the least-known track and field star in the U.S. The reason is obvious: he's a triple jumper. Compared to its big brother, the long jump, the triple has long been the orphan of American field events. It was not even included in the NCAA championship meet on a continuous basis until 1959. American interest in the event has been so halfhearted that the last time a U.S. citizen won an Olympic gold medal in the triple jump was 1904, when one Myer Prinstein jumped 47'1". Before James Butts took the silver in Montreal, an American hadn't won a medal in the triple jump since 1928. The current record of 58'8¼" was set by Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Oliveira of Brazil in 1975. Viktor Saneyev of the Soviet Union has won the Olympic gold medal the last three Games in a row.
Until recently, when superior athletes like Tiff, Butts and Ron Livers began to concentrate on it, Americans regarded the triple jump as a variation on the long jump. But the triple, still known to some by its old name, the hop, step and jump, is radically different from the long jump and requires a complex technique all its own. After a running start of about 140 feet, each contestant makes three explosive jumps. After the first jump he must land on the same foot used for the initial takeoff, after the second on the opposite foot, and after the third on both feet. This is no Cakewalk. The coordination of the three phases is so difficult that dabblers and first-timers find themselves flailing down the runway like ice skaters about to take a tumble. Unlike the long jump, the triple requires legs of equal strength. It also demands that the athlete work out a compromise among three elements of execution; if a jumper goes too far on the hop or step, he will find himself out of sync for what follows. The triple jump's special problems make instant success unlikely.
Why then would Tiff, who has the potential to be a 7-foot high jumper and 26-foot long jumper, devote himself to this difficult, involved and unappreciated event? When asked that question, he answers like a true artist. "Triple jump is hopscotch with a larger perspective," he says. "I picked it because visually it's a kid's game; it's played every day." One senses, however, that for Tiff the appeal goes beyond esthetics. Consider his description of the sensations: "I'm coming down the runway, and I'm counting. It takes me 16 strides [a stride for Tiff is about nine feet] to get to the takeoff board. As I hit the 10th stride I say, 'Now start propelling. Feel like you're a prop plane. When you hit the board, spin the propeller as hard as you can, and the motor will go brrr. And boom! you're gone, just like a plane.' "
Or think about his reasons for preferring the triple to the long jump: "I didn't do long jump because it's too easy. To just take off and come down is all right. But to take off, come down, and go right back up is special. Take a rock and throw it on the water, and watch it skip three or four times across the surface. There's something that hypnotizes you about that. Triple jump is the same thing, only you're hurling yourself through the air. You're actually flying!"
Indeed, the triple jump is the closest thing to flying in all of track and field. Except for two brief contacts with the ground after the initial takeoff, a world-class triple jumper projects himself through the air well over 50'. And why would Milan Tiff want to fly? One doesn't need the insight of a Freud to find the answer: because he thought he would never walk. "When I was a child I wanted to inter another realm beyond my physical handicaps," he says. "Triple jumping is a way of burying the past. When I'm jumping, the past doesn't exist anymore. I'm flying like Peter Pan."
With an attitude so insightful, it is not it all surprising that Tiff should have selected the legendary Bob Beamon to be his coach. Perhaps "coach" is not the correct word. Tiff is fond of saying, "Beamon teaches me the mystical aspects of he event." Beamon, of course, is the man who stunned the track and field world when he long-jumped 29'2½" in the 1968 Olympics. Beamon's jump is quite possibly the greatest achievement in rack and field history.
It took Tiff two months to get up the nerve to approach Beamon. Finally, he said to himself, "I'm the best triple-jump mind on the planet [modesty is not one of Tiffs failings], but even the best mind needs someone to talk to." He went up to Beamon and said, "You know, I'm the first 60-foot jumper." Sixty feet is considered an unreachable barrier in the triple jump, just as four minutes once was in the mile. "Beamon said, 'Of course you are.' I said, 'Let's hook up and show them through my triple jumping that your 29 was no accident.' "
Beamon is enthusiastic about Tiff. "Milan can go 60 feet," he says. "He has the most natural ability of all the jumpers." At track meets Tiff and Beamon can be seen huddling together before and after each jump. Beamon has a faraway smile on his face, as though he has a direct line to the music of the spheres. He is fond of taking Tiff off to the side and intoning secret instructions in his ear. When someone asks Tiff what Beamon tells him in those sessions, he smiles and answers matter-of-factly, "He hums a lot."
Pressed for an explanation, Tiff becomes mystifying. "Bob Beamon is the only jumper who penetrated the unknown," he says in a serious voice. "He knows what's there. It's on the tip of his tongue, but he can't put it into words. So he just turns it into noises. He gets ready to tell me what it is in a word that I can understand, but he's pulling it from another world and it has no vocabulary. So it just comes out in hums. He says, 'When you come down the runway and you hit the board and you take off, you've got to start....' And I'm waiting for him to say a word. Then, all of a sudden there are noises like ummmm and umph. And I'm saying, 'I know what you mean. I can feel what you're talking about.' "
One recent Sunday morning a visitor pays a call on Tiff at his Malibu condominium just a hop, step and jump from the Pacific. Tiff answers the door in torn jeans and a work shirt that overflows his six-foot, 140-pound frame like an overcoat on a wire hanger. His face is angular and thin, with deep ravines where the cheeks should be. He leads the way into the living room, past a wall full of clippings chronicling his many victories. "I'm glad you're here," he says. "You've seen triple jumping, which is my hobby. Now I want you to see my work. I'm a 10-times-better artist than athlete."
Tiffs living room has a bohemian look. There isn't the slightest clue that he's an athlete. Art objects are everywhere—a fabric sculpture given him by the People's Republic of China after he competed (and won) there in 1975, a small chunk of the Great Wall in a glass case, and original Tiffs in profusion. A sketch of his wife, Aleita, stares down from one wall. On another is The World Economy, a redesign of the dollar bill done in gold leaf, in which a view of North and Central America occupies the space where Washington's face should be.
Tiff believes his athletic accomplishments have hampered his professional success. "When people think of an athlete, they picture someone big and dumb and uneducated," he says with some bitterness. He sometimes paints up to 18 hours a day, taking time out only to train or nap. Aleita will put food in a dish and leave it outside the door of their spare bedroom, which serves as his studio. She'll come back in a few hours, and the dish will be empty. Sometimes he won't emerge for days. "I go into another world," he says, "and when I come out, I'm bringing something with me, an image."
Tiff works exclusively in acrylic on canvas. He paints in bright blues and yellows and reds and oranges. His pictures often contain the outlines of North America, scenes of the cosmos and fields of color that he says represent the alternation of day and night. He is particularly preoccupied with that cycle. "It's the ultimate reality," he says. "We didn't create it, and we don't know what did. It's going on all the time, and we can't stop it from happening."
Tiffs works tend to be massive, 4' x 4' at least, and usually contain abstract, geometric shapes that are perfectly centered and surrounded by wide margins of light-blue space, signifying daylight. He does not sign his paintings. Three small white birds in a corner of the blue space are his symbol. When the visitor points out that the birds, like the triple jump, seem to reflect his preoccupation with escaping the earth, Tiff says, "You're right. I want to fly. Someday I'll make a painting 50 by 50 of just blue, with only the three little birds in a corner."
Tiff didn't come by his artistic abilities accidentally. He was virtually reared in a fine-arts conservatory. His mother, Gladys, once a professional opera singer, now teaches voice; his father did guitar arrangements; his oldest brother, Manning, is a jazz pianist; another brother, Maurice, is a painter; and a sister, Michele, is a concert pianist. While the family doesn't come right out and disapprove of Tiffs athletic career, it treats it as a passing infatuation. Milan Tiff understands that his days as a triple jumper are numbered. He plans to get out, he says, just as soon as he wins a gold medal in Moscow.
The primary fact of Tiffs athletic career, however, is that he has never won an Olympic medal. Nor, for that matter, has he ever qualified for the Olympic team. He finished 10th in the 1972 Olympic Trials. And in 1976, just a year after Track and Field News ranked him second in the nation, he was eliminated in the preliminary round, fouling on his first two jumps and staggering to a ludicrous 46'11" on his third—46'11" is three feet short of his high school best.
The obvious theory is that Tiff choked. When asked about that possibility, he grows impatient. "Going into the last two Olympic Trials, I was considered a cinch to make the team, but I didn't even jump near my potential. There was nothing accidental about that. I gave less than a halfhearted effort." If, indeed, that was the case, Tiff was making a personal protest rooted in a deep feeling that American amateur athletes are exploited. "It's a matter of survival," he says. "It's not right that we don't get paid for international competition. I'm giving too much to get nothing. I can't take a handclap home and eat or sleep from it. The Olympics are very political. When I'm wearing the U.S.A. emblem and competing against someone who's got on the hammer and sickle, that's not for fun; that's capitalism against socialism. They can call it sports if they want to, but it's serious business. I'm not getting paid, and my competition is."
When it is suggested that no one forced him to compete in the Trials to begin with, he snaps, "Not to show up at all would have created too much attention. I'm not a radical. So I just went there and lost. I was practicing my rights as an amateur. To win or lose is a private decision. But I'm going to the Olympics in 1980 because it's the end of my career, and I want to prove to everyone that I was the best all along."
Not everyone is sold on Tiffs reasoning. Ken Matsuda, an assistant track coach at USC, says Tiff has the potential to jump 58'. But Matsuda is skeptical of the story Tiff tells about the Trials. "Milan's unfortunate," he says. "His big jumps don't come at the right times. He depends on exceptional form, not power. His rhythm has to be exactly right, or he looks awful. Even now, when he loses he'll say, 'I wasn't really competing. I was working on my hop phase.' "
Jim Bush, his coach at UCLA, calls Tiff a "genius" and freely admits, "I don't think we ever did any coaching for him. He knows more about triple jumping than my field coach did. He's our biggest threat to break the record." But when it comes to the idea that Tiff intentionally lost, Bush says, "Deep in his heart Milan may be convinced he lost on purpose, but triple jumping is so difficult it's easy to have an off day."
Only Tiff knows the truth about what happened at the Olympic Trials, and he says he doesn't care what the track world thinks. "I know how good I am," he declares. "I'm the only person I have to answer to."
Milan Tiff trains at 9 o'clock every morning at the UCLA track in Westwood. Regulars at that hour include former professional football player Bernie Casey (actor, poet and, like Tiff, painter), pentathlete Jane Frederick and comedian Jimmie Walker. No matter how hot the day, Tiff wears two pairs of sweats and keeps the pants on, hiding his thin calves. Until recently, he always taped his ankles. "The doctors used to tell me to stop jumping because my bones were grinding together," he says. "They warned that one day I'd jump and my bones would shatter. I used to tape my ankles just in case they did, so the pieces wouldn't fall all over the place. I wanted to have all my pieces to take to the hospital."
As Tiff goes through his routine of stretching and striding and bounding down the runway, he keeps up a nonstop monologue. He's a born performer, intensely aware of playing to an audience. He takes delight in tossing off conversational tidbits he knows will shock, and then waits to see the effect. Typical Tiff: "My dog, Egypt, is part deer." (Egypt, it must be noted, looks like an ordinary dog.) "I never eat meat, but I get 10 times more protein by painting blue than you can by eating 1,000 steaks a day." He would like officials to throw away the tape measure in triple jump. "Triple jumping is an art form; it's like ballet. If my jump pleases the eye, it must be a long one."
By 11 a.m. Tiff finishes his workout. As he slowly gets ready to leave (the seemingly simple act of changing his shoes can take up to an hour), he regales those near him with stories. One involves his preseason workouts. Unlike most triple jumpers, Tiff eschews weight training and sprint drills. "They're a waste of time," he says. Instead, he sharpens up by running in the Sierra foothills with wild animals. It all started a few years ago in San Joaquin Valley. "I was running in the mountains one time, just chugging along on a path," he says. "Suddenly this deer crossed in front of me. I looked at its anatomy and structure and strength and thought how magnificent the deer was. So I decided to chase it. The deer could sense that I wasn't a hunter. It stayed on the path instead of cutting off into the bush. It was like the deer could communicate with me. I was actually running with it, testing my speed against his. I said, 'I'm going to catch this deer,' and I shifted gears and went into top speed. The deer could feel me shifting gears. Then I saw the deer change from running on all four legs to two legs at a time. He pushed off with the back legs, reached out with the front ones and pulled his back legs through his front legs. Suddenly he'd put a mile between us. Right there I learned that if I push and pull on each stride rather than run, I go faster. So I go up there every year and run with the deer."
When Tiff really gets revved up, he's fond of telling what happened early one morning when he wandered into a restaurant while still a student at UCLA. "Some of my friends were there, and they started asking me about triple jumping," he says. "At 2 a.m. there weren't many people in the restaurant, so few that everybody could get in the same conversation. Pretty soon my friends were introducing me as the world's greatest triple jumper to the cooks, the waitresses and the drunks—the night people who tune out in restaurants. Everyone was asking what the triple jump was. I said, 'It's the hop, step and jump.' 'What's that?' they asked. I got up from the table and started taking tiny triple jumps of about 10 feet to show them. They said, 'We've got to see a larger version.' So I enlarged my jump to 20 feet. Meanwhile, a few more people came in and saw me bounding across the restaurant, and they got scared because they thought I was a robber. But the drunks said, 'Come in. This is the world's greatest triple jumper. We're getting a live demonstration.' By now everybody in that restaurant was my audience. I decided to take the show outside.
"I said, 'If you can come up with $50, I'll triple-jump right across the street.' They said the street must be 100 feet wide. I could see it was only 50. They went into the cash register and got $50. I said, 'Keep your money. If I jump across the street, all I want is for you to tell me how I did it.' We went outside and I backed way up on the sidewalk. Traffic had come to a dead stop. I ran down, and when I hit the edge of the sidewalk I took off. I went clear over the street. I was so hyped up I think I broke the world's record that night.
"The people went nuts. Then we went back inside the restaurant. By now the drunks had sobered up. Everybody wanted to be my coach from that night on. They were saying, 'You were good, but with some work you could be great.' So I said, 'I want everybody to be serious and tell me how I did it.' Silence. Then after a while, one of the drunks from the back of the restaurant got up and said, 'You call it the triple jump, but we saw what you really do. You fly.' "